There are names that have been passed down through thousands of years which have powerful and deep-rooted meaning to their bearers. Other names have been adopted from other languages, cultures and from the big screen. They all have one thing in common. They are with us from birth until the grave and they are how we are known to everyone that we meet.
Celia – A Crisis of Faith
Celia sat on the edge of the wooden chair and looked around the sparse room. The bare white walls were cold and seemed to be closing in on her as if in reprimand for her decision. This room was not the only chilly environment that she had been subjected to for the last months, as news of her defection was whispered amongst those at a senior level.
She had been told to wait here over an hour ago. Her uncertainty about the future was now solidified into an icy premonition that she had made a huge mistake. This had been her life’s work, her mission and her passion. At one time she would have walked across burning coals so strong was her belief, that the life she had chosen was perfect for her. For almost all of the last twenty years she had been an exemplary example of devotion to her vocation.
She had been named after her grandmother’s much loved older sister. Great aunt Celia had entered this very order at fourteen years old and had died sixty years later as the Mother Superior of the convent. The younger members of the family had never been privileged to meet her. However, her grandmother spent many hours with Celia, talking about how proud the family had been of the devoutness of this legendary figure. Even as a child Celia had felt the weight of obligation and the need to honour the previous owner of her name.
Once in her teens and slightly at odds with the changing world around her; it became apparent to the devout Celia that she was destined to follow in the footsteps of her great aunt. At age eighteen she had entered the convent and had never stepped outside of its high stone walls since that day.
Through the years as a novitiate and then following her final vows, she had embraced the life completely. The order rose each day at 5.00 am and spent the day in prayer and working within the convent and its gardens. When Celia retired each night to her small and austere room, she would remember her family in her prayers, even as their faces began to fade.
She couldn’t identify the moment with any certainty, when doubts about her life resulted in sleepless nights, and loss of concentration during prayers. She found herself experiencing flashbacks to a time when her days seemed filled with laughter and light. Though frivolous, she also remembered teenage years and dancing with her sister to the latest hit record, as a brightly coloured skirt whirled around her knees.
She had tried to put these forbidden thoughts aside, but she no longer felt peaceful or joyous, as she dressed in her habit each morning in the cold dark of winter. She certainly no longer had the lightness of heart of the early years here in the convent. Like cracks in the dry earth these doubts had grown and spread through her being; until she could no longer be silent.
What she did feel was a huge sense of guilt. The thought of the shame that she was bringing on the name of her great aunt, who obviously had been far more steadfast in her devotion, consumed her. Her spiritual family here in the order would also be confused and hurt by her betrayal. She could only imagine how much her parents would be disappointed, and she dreaded the thought of facing them.
Across the room on a narrow iron bed, stacked in a neat pile, were the garments that she had worn daily for the last twenty years. As she looked at the folded robes and undergarments, she reflected on how little there was to show for all her time in the convent. She felt very strange in her new clothes that had been sourced from a store cupboard in the depths of the old building. Just for a moment she missed the all-encompassing safety of her former attire. She raised a hand to her short hair that felt coarse to her touch. It had been so long since it had been uncovered in public and its blunt cut and greying red hairs make her feel even more self-conscious.
The door opened and the Mother Superior stood in the doorway. She stepped back and beckoned Celia towards her, and watched as she bent to pick up the old brown suitcase by her side, that held another set of equally dated clothes.
‘Come along now,’ she ordered crisply. ‘Everyone is in chapel and you need to leave immediately.’
Celia brushed past the nun’s voluminous black habit and the firmly clasped hands across her ample middle. There was no softness to be found there or comfort. Celia faltered for a moment and saw a slight shift in the older woman’s stern features.
Closing her eyes she steadied herself against the door jam and then put one foot in front of the other. She clasped the handle of the suitcase tightly; in need of its rough texture against her palm to strengthen her resolve. In her other hand she gripped the white envelope which contained her official papers and a few notes to pay for her travel.
In silence the two women proceeded down the dark corridor and into the hall of the convent. One of the other senior sisters stood by the large oak front door and seeing them approach, opened it to the front garden. Celia paused for a moment on the doorstep and turned for one last look behind her. Her biggest regret was not being able to tell her fellow sisters about her decision, or to say goodbye. She loved them all dearly and tears filled her eyes as she contemplated the future without their warmth and support.
The two nuns stiffened postures softened for a moment; as they remembered times when their own faith had perhaps wavered momentarily. However, the rules were clear and gently the Mother Superior placed her hand on the small of Celia’s back, and pushed her clear of the door. She then stepped back into the hall and there was a resounding click as the way back was firmly barred.
The sun was shining and for a moment Celia turned her face to the blue sky and warmth. She had been Sister Monica Grace for so long that even thinking about her given name confused her. Hands trembling as the fear continued its grip; she tried to move a foot down onto the first of the concrete steps leading to the garden. It was a long walk to the gate that separated the world from this enclosed order, and she saw another sister waiting patiently to unlock and open it for her departure.
Gingerly she took her first step and then another and she managed to navigate the path to the walls behind which lay the outside world. Silently the nun used the long metal key and pulled back half of the tall wooden gate. Celia was too ashamed to look her in the eyes and slipped through the opening and onto the busy pavement.
Shockingly she was suddenly in a world that was noisy and filled with vehicles that looked alien. Pedestrians hurried along the narrow pathway and seemed oblivious to her standing in the middle of them. Especially those who were talking to themselves with some form of device held up to their ears.
Then she noticed a car parked at the kerb and a man waving his hand to urge her forward. She saw that the vehicle had the word taxi in big letters on the side and shakily moved towards this life saver in the chaos. The driver took her suitcase from her and opened the back door. He smiled reassuringly and informed her that his cab had been booked to take her to the train station. Closing the back door firmly he took his place behind the wheel. As the car pulled away from the side of the road Celia took one last look at the high stone walls of her home for so many years.
The driver navigated through the heavy traffic whilst his passenger gazed around her in bewildered confusion. So many cars and people and a blur of colour as shops and restaurants flashed by the windows.
Within minutes however they arrived at the station and she was shocked to see Margaret waiting for her on the kerb. How was this possible? She had not taken advantage of the offer to make a phone call to her family, in her certainty that they would not be accepting of her decision. The driver came around to her side of the taxi and held the door open with the battered suitcase in his hand. As her sister rushed forward, Celia grasped the top of the window and pulled herself out onto the pavement. Without any hesitation her sister leant forward and throwing strong arms around her shaking body, held Celia tightly.
The two women stood back after a few moments, and holding hands, looked at each other in wonderment. Celia reached out a palm and laid it on her sister’s soft cheek. It was like looking at a mirror image; but one that was brighter and lighter than her own. Soft curly red hair with just a few strands of grey shone in the sunlight and the green eyes with traces of tears sparkled back at her.
‘How did you know where I would be?’ she stroked her sister’s arm.
‘Mother Superior called me a week ago and told me that you were not going to call us,’ Margaret paused. ‘How could you think that we would not want you to come home Cel.’
Celia subconsciously moved her fingers through her hair and Margaret laughed and
hugged her close.
‘First stop the hairdresser sis when we get home.’ she stood back and looked at Celia’s old fashioned tweed suit. ‘And we need to get you a new wardrobe.’
She gently released her sister’s fingers from her hand and picked up the suitcase lying abandoned at their feet.
‘I have missed you so much Cel. Only once a year for twenty years is torture.’ With that she placed her arm around her waist and they moved off into the station.
The train flashed through the countryside at terrifying speed but as the two sisters sat side by side the ice cold fear in Celia’s chest began to thaw.
She let her twin rattle on brightly about her house, her husband Robbie, the two boys Andrew and Patrick who Celia had never met. Margaret had also brought a large envelope of photographs of all the family, including her parents, surrounded by grandchildren and pets in their back garden. Celia touched her sister gently on the arm to pause the exuberant flow of words.
‘Do they understand Mags?’ she bit her lower lip.
‘They love you Cel and have your old room ready and waiting,’ Margaret leant over to kiss Celia’s cheek. ‘They have missed you so much and whilst they respected your decision to enter into the convent, they never really forgave grandmother for encouraging you.’
Celia didn’t take her eyes off the face so like hers as she continued to relate the events of the last twenty years, embellishing the stories in a way that she had almost forgotten. She felt bathed in the warmth of the outpouring as she watched her sister’s lips moving, entranced by the unfamiliar sound of a voice talking rather than praying.
For the last few miles of the journey they sat in silence basking in the sunshine that shone through the carriage window. They held hands as they had so many times as children; a closeness that only twins share. Celia had sat in silence when at prayer thousands of times in the last twenty years, but she finally realised that the missing element had always been this closeness. The simple joy of being with each other. Knowing that there is love and an unbreakable bond between you.
She had no regrets about her life and her chosen path but she also now understood, that when joy has left and cannot be recaptured, you needed to let go and move forward in a new direction.
She also pondered the unexpected kindness shown by Mother Superior in notifying her family. She had been so terrified of taking this step that she had forgotten the compassion that her religious sisters offered to each other as part of any close knit family.
The train entered the station and the two sisters walked arm in arm along the platform until they were swallowed up and smothered by kiss and tear filled embraces from the welcoming committee.
I hope that you have enjoyed this story and as always look forward to your feedback. Thanks Sally
You can find recent reviews for my latest release and other books: Sally’s books and reviews 2019/2020